NCAA Final Four: The Most Unlikely Runs in NCAA Tournament History

Jason HeimCorrespondent IApril 5, 2011

NCAA Final Four: The Most Unlikely Runs in NCAA Tournament History

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    The NCAA tournament is a platform for the surprising, the unexpected and the downright shocking.  Many teams invoke these reactions as they break off upset after upset on their way to the Final Four.

    Kemba Walker's Connecticut Huskies are the latest example of unlikely tournament success, winning arguably the most upside down NCAA tournament in history.  One month ago today, they finished their Big East season with a loss to Notre Dame, their fourth in five games. At 21-9 and 9-9 in league play, there was doubt that the Huskies were even safely in the Big Dance.  

    What a difference a month makes.  UConn reeled off an improbable 11-straight wins to be the only Big East team to end its season with a win.

    Other teams have consummated the unlikely with a national championship like the Huskies, while some have fallen short after a Cinderella run.  

    Here are some of the most unlikely runs to the Final Four and how each team ended up.  

2006: No. 11 George Mason Patriots

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    The best-known Cinderella team since the 1986 LSU Tigers was the George Mason Patriots in 2006.  Led by Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn, Lamar Butler and Will Thomas, the Colonial Athletic regular-season champions lost in the CAA tournament, but still grabbed an at-large bid.

    Coach Jim Larranaga became the face of the 2006 tournament, as his team took down title-favorite Connecticut before losing to eventual champion Florida in the Final Four.   





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 6 Michigan State, 75-65

    No. 3 North Carolina, 65-60

    No. 7 Wichita State, 63-55

    No. 1 Connecticut, 86-84

2000: No. 8 North Carolina Tar Heels

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    The Heels had a very turbulent season that ended well.  They never won more than three games in a row all year long, which makes it astounding that they got hot for long enough to make a run in March.  Coach Bill Guthridge took Ed Cota, Brendan Haywood, Ronald Curry, Joseph Forte and Julius Peppers all the way to Indianapolis, seemingly on fumes from a rocky regular season.

    The Heels bowed out to fifth-seeded Florida in the first semifinal. The Gators would go on to lose in the title game to Michigan State. 





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 9 Missouri, 84-70

    No. 1 Stanford, 60-53

    No. 4 Tennessee, 74-69

    No. 7 Tulsa, 59-55

2000: No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers

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    The 2000 Badgers' unlikely run to the Final Four was nearly identical in nature to North Carolina's.  Both were No. 8 seeds in their regions, played to 18-13 records, never won four games in a row until the tournament and played a No. 6 seed or worse in their regional final games.

    Dick Bennett's team, led by Travon Davis and Kirk Penney, lost to eventual champion Michigan State in its national semifinal.    





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 9 Fresno State, 66-56

    No. 1 Arizona, 66-59

    No. 4 LSU, 61-48

    No. 6 Purdue, 64-60

1992: No. 6 Michigan Wolverines

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    The first year of the "Fab Five" started strong for Steve Fisher's squad and continued through the regular season.  Somehow, this team full of freshmen fell to a No. 6 seed when it probably should have been higher.  

    After reaching Minneapolis, the Wolverines outlasted Cincinnati to set up a meeting with Duke in the national championship game.  Sadly, this team would lose to Duke and then again to North Carolina the next season.  





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 11 Temple, 73-66

    No. 14, East Tennessee State, 102-90

    No. 2 Oklahoma State, 75-72

    No. 1 Ohio State, 75-71

    No 4. Cincinnati, 76-74 (national semifinal)

1988: No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks

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    Larry Brown's Jayhawks began the season in the Top 10, but fell out of the polls altogether by midseason in the midst of four-straight Big Eight losses.  "Danny and the Miracles" finished off a run that is surpassed by only one since the tournament expanded from 32 teams in the 1970s.

    Interestingly, Kansas happened to meet some familiar foes, playing Kansas State for the third time in the Midwest regional final, then Oklahoma in the national championship game.  

    This team defied all expectations on its way to the championship, though a few low-seeded opponents water down the accomplishment a tad.  Danny Manning, named National Player of the Year, was transcendent in leading a group of no-names to the promised land of college basketball. 





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 11 Xavier, 85-72

    No. 14 Murray State, 61-58

    No. 7 Vanderbilt, 77-64

    No. 4 Kansas State, 71-58

    No. 2 Duke, 66-59 (national semifinal)

    No. 1 Oklahoma, 83-79 (national championship)

1986: No. 11 LSU Tigers

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    Dale Brown's squad faced a very tough road to the Final Four, which makes this accomplishment that much more impressive.  As opposed to the Kansas team of 1988, these Tigers didn't luck into playing some low seeds that pulled upsets.

    The first double-digit seed ever to reach the Final Four, LSU bowed out in the semifinal to "Nervous" Pervis Ellison and the champion Louisville Cardinals.  




    Road to the Final Four

    No. 6 Purdue, 94-87

    No. 3 Memphis State, 83-81

    No. 2 Georgia Tech, 70-64

    No. 1 Kentucky, 59-57

1985: No. 8 Villanova Wildcats

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    The 1985 Villanova Wildcats are the crown jewel of NCAA tournament lore.

    This team made history as the lowest seed to ever win the national championship, which Rollie Massimino's team can still claim 26 years later.  The Wildcats survived their first three games by four points or less as underdogs, but they were just getting started.  

    After winning the South region by beating North Carolina, they actually got better in beating Memphis State in the Final Four.  This set up a meeting with Patrick Ewing's vaunted Georgetown Hoyas.  'Nova, however, was a team of destiny that would not be denied.  The 'Cats rode a blistering 78 percent shooting to a narrow win over the heavily favored Hoyas.

    Massimino, star Ed Pinckney and company will forever live in tournament history because of their run in '85.  





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 9 Dayton, 51-49

    No. 1 Michigan, 59-55

    No. 5 Maryland, 46-43

    No. 2 North Carolina, 56-44

    No. 2 Memphis State, 52-45 (national semifinal)

    No. 1 Georgetown, 66-64 (national championship)

1983: No. 6 North Carolina State Wolfpack

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    Jim Valvano, who's owned an elevated post in the sports world since passing away from cancer in 1993, led one of the most improbable championship runs in tournament history.  The Wolfpack of 1983 is the second-lowest-seeded team ever to win a national championship.

    Lorenzo Charles' dunk in the final minute of the national championship game against Houston's "Phi Slama Jama" (Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Benny Anders) is one of the most replayed clips in sports history, as is the following celebration by Valvano and his team.  

    It might not be the most impressive run (the tournament field was only 52)—though it certainly is impressive—but it is the most iconic moment in NCAA tournament history because of Jimmy V and his legacy.  





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 3 UNLV, 71-70

    No. 10 Utah, 75-56

    No. 1 Virginia, 63-62

    No. 4 Georgia, 67-60 (national semifinal)

    No. 1 Houston, 54-52 (national championship)

1980: No. 8 UCLA Bruins

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    Larry Brown's first work of magic in the NCAA tournament came with the post-Wooden Bruins in 1980.

    In a 48-team field, the Bruins took down Player of the Year Mark Aguirre and the top-seeded Blue Demons of DePaul, then took down three more favorites before falling to Denny Crum's Louisville team in the national championship game.    





    Road to the Final Four

    No. 9 Old Dominion, 87-74

    No. 1 DePaul, 77-71

    No. 4 Ohio State, 72-68

    No. 6 Clemson, 85-74

    No. 6 Purdue, 67-62 (national semifinal)

Almost, but Not Quite

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    Many other teams have made unlikely runs to the Elite Eight, but are forgotten because they narrowly missed the Final Four.  Let's give some appreciation to these giant-killers of the past.

    No. 10 Davidson in 2008

    No. 10 Kent State and No. 12 Missouri in 2002

    No. 11 Temple in 2001

    No. 10 Gonzaga in 1999

    No. 10 Providence in 1997

    No. 9 Boston College in 1994

    No. 10 Temple in 1991

    No. 10 Texas and No. 11 Loyola Marymount in 1990

    No. 10 LSU in 1987

    No. 10 Dayton in 1984

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